Beyond Timbuktu: Stepping outside the engineering comfort zone

June 2009 » Columns
After dusk, we were limited to sparkling conversation and viewing what flashlight illumination allowed. It was probably for the best: Every day, as soon as daylight broke, the roosters and oxen would greet one another from one end of the village to the other, and thus, most mornings began early. Welcome to Makili, Mali, located a few hundred kilometers southwest from the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Cathy Bazxn-Arias, Ph.D., P.E.

 After dusk, we were limited to sparkling conversation and viewing what flashlight illumination allowed. It was probably for the best: Every day, as soon as daylight broke, the roosters and oxen would greet one another from one end of the village to the other, and thus, most mornings began early.

Welcome to Makili, Mali. Located a few hundred kilometers southwest from the fabled city of Timbuktu, Makili is an agricultural village with approximately 1,400 people. The seasons fluctuate between dry and rainy and cool and hot. Because of its relatively flat topography, there is limited storage of water in the form of lakes or ponds for fishing, one of the main sources of protein for the community. Thus, in 2007, through a contact from the Peace Corps, the University of Pittsburgh Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-Pitt) endeavored to aid Makilians in addressing their nutritional needs by providing technical, educational, and financial assistance.

Members of the University of Pittsburgh Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders and a Mali friend acquired on their way to Mali pose for picture.

During my stay as mentor, the EWB-Pitt team conducted a detailed survey for a future permanent fish pond site; held meetings with community leaders and members; interviewed health officials; and integrated into village life, which included getting used to well water and ground latrines. These conditions quickly become part of the daily routine alongside sleeping under the stars and working around the hottest hours of the day, which easily reached well above 110° F. But what I’ll remember most is the warmth and courtesy that everyone from the village chief to the Peace Corps volunteers to the smallest toddler extended to us—the spirit of hospitality is alive and active in Makili.

All aspiring and experienced engineers should work at least once during their careers in a project that challenges their comfort zone. Whether it is on a greater-than-life project or addressing the fundamental infrastructure needs of a village community, it is not until you are charged with effectively understanding and communicating with contractors, regulators, community members, scientists, and engineers in another part of the country or the world that one appreciates what civil engineers do and the impact our work makes. How often do you think that your work is not significant or just "routine," or that people don’t understand what you do? It is because of this lack of understanding and low sense of appreciation that I think we contend with several issues in our profession ranging from bidding procedures and commodity-versus-professional services to outsourcing and professional licensing.

The main challenge for engineers to gain this experience is the willingness to step outside our comfort zone. "Why do I need to work elsewhere (even temporarily)?" "What can I do/learn in another state/country?" "My language/writing skills will limit my experience/contribution in the project." These are expressions of apprehension rather than lack of ability. The saying, "Where there’s a will there’s a way," is applicable now more than ever for engineers willing to experience unique projects—from EWB to the Peace Corps to Habitat for Humanity and disaster-relief volunteer opportunities. It really is a matter of mind over matter.

If you can step outside your comfort zone, then perhaps, as you watch the brightly lit stars lying on your yoga mat (memo to self: invest in an air mattress) through mosquito netting and ponder, "What am I doing here?", you will likely recall something throughout the day that will provide the answer. Remember the neighbors’ questions as they watch you take survey readings, or the children’s laughter as they curiously eye your calculator and notes. You will remember being extra careful with tools and machinery so that no one is hurt (OSHA would be proud) and the sense of responsibility on your shoulders because the best hope for the community’s needs is your work. And you will more than likely enjoy a good night’s rest. Until the oxen and roosters rouse you.

Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E., is senior staff engineer for DiGioia, Gray & Associates, LLC, Monroeville, Pa.

E-mail comments in care of bdrake@stagnitomedia.com.


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